Go north to Southern Irelands’ most unspoilt county

Five-star Lough Eske Castle Hotel, Donnegal
Five-star Lough Eske Castle Hotel, Donnegal
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We were headed for tranquil Southern Ireland to stay in a 17th century castle deep in ancient woodland, Jo Davison writes.

But it seems all Irish to me; we’re going north.

From our Stena ferry crossing to Dun Laoghaire we follow the signs for Enniskillen in County Fermanagh - scene of the IRA’s Remembrance Day bombing in 1987 which claimed 11 lives.

From this now calm, phoenix of a town we peel north-west, into the corner of Northern Ireland that is actually Southern Ireland - Donegal.

They call it one of the last true wildernesses left in Ireland, this county. And it is tranquil indeed. Not so many tourists come here, despite a wealth of natural assets spanning the magnificent Bluestack Mountains from which on a clear day six different counties can be seen, to rivers teaming with salmon, moors where red deer stags roam and a coastline that flips from calm seaside vistas to wild, breathtaking ruggedness. Some of the best hiking, golfing, surfing and fishing in the country is in Donegal.

But I guess its proximity to Ulster, and its distance from Dublin, is what has kept the tourists at bay.

Our destination is Lough Eske, ancestral home of the O’Donnell clan. Our abode for two nights is five-star Lough Eske Castle, voted best luxury country hotel for three years running. A gastronomic break beckons. The hotel’s head chef, Nicolas Le Toumelin, was previously executive chef at Jade Jagger’s stylish Turkish restaurant The Secret Garden - and he’s relishing working with Irish produce, turning out wondrous Irish breakfasts and lavish table d’hote dinners in the hotel’s Cedars restaurant.

We follow the long, sweeping drive through woodland to a beautifully restored example of aristocratic Gaelic architecture. The castle was a tumbledown shell when the present owners rescued it with a multi-million euro budget and two years of labour. The look is refined, understated elegance and the facilities are exemplary. Stone fireplaces, fine paintings and a grand staircase create classy country charm, but our room was contemporary chic, with marble-tiled walk-in double shower and a huge white linen-dressed bed.

You barely want to leave the hotel. In its Solis spa we enjoyed energising swims before breakfasting on soda bread, Irish bacon and black pudding and deeply-relaxing Aromatherapy Associates body massages before dining on hot-smoked salmon, locally-reared lamb and char-grilled beef in the restaurant one night, Guinness, oysters, hand-made burgers and triple-cooked chips in the atmospheric Gallery Bar the next.

One morning one of the chefs revealed the secret of the salmon starters - a tiny garden shed, transformed into the hotel’s very own smoking house. He gave us a lesson and it looked so easy, I might convert our coalbunker.

Surrounded by luxury and history, though, you can’t help but contemplate how land creating such wondrous produce once caused the starvation of a million people. The 1840s famine was caused by failure of the potato crop, now blamed on disease brought to Ireland by South American ships. Lough Eske’s famine graveyards, where countless bodies were buried, and the famine pot soup kitchen, make for sobering visits. Another million had to emigrate to America, many from Donegal Town.

We spent a gorgeous afternoon on the stunning nearby beach Rossnowlagh. But you can’t gaze out at the Atlantic waves without remembering they took as many to their doom as to a new life. The county they left has prospered, yet its heart is unchanged. Its past is still present.

Three things to do:

1 There are six walks from Lough Eske Castle, ranging from 45 minutes to five hours in length. The 5km Burns Mountain walk takes you to the summit, where seven families once lived.

2Spend an hour or so aboard the 160-seater Donegal waterbus that leaves the pier in Donegal Town up to three times a day to cruise the Donegal Bay, passing Seal Island and the embarkation point of emigrants to Canada and North-America during Famine years. There’s a running commentary by an enigmatic chap with a great range of Englishman, Scotsman and Irishman jokes.

3 A 20-minute drive from Donegal Town lies the beautiful, unspoilt sandy beach that, at the right times of the year, is a surfer’s paradise.One of Ireland’s best Blue Flag beaches, it seems to stretch for miles when the tide is out and is popular with kite-fliers and swimmers.

Fact File:

stay:Solis Lough Eske Castle is offering three nights for the price of two for €540 per couple in a deluxe room with full Irish breakfast and access to the pool, fitness room and thermal suite (offer valid until 2014, Sun-Thurs, based on two people sharing, subject to availability (not available over Christmas, when there is a four-night Festive Package from December 23-27 from €695 per person sharing).

Getting there:Stena Line Ferries Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire. Stena Line offers low fares, new levels of comfort and a speedier ferry travel service. Onboard facilities include play areas for children, free Wi-Fi, onboard restaurants and discount shopping. There are four daily sails from Holyhead to Dublin Port and one daily from Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire. Travel from £79 single from Holyhead to Dublin Port or £115 single from Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire for a car and driver. The latest great-value ferry deal from Stena Line on the Liverpool to Belfast route costs from £109 single trip for two people..Go to www.stenaline.co.uk, call Stena Line on 08447 70 70 70.